(not so) SWIFT – a look at a new conference tool

Before I even came home from SXSW, the library folks on Twitter were talking about SWIFT. Since I’m not going to Computers in Libraries (I was previously engaged, I’ll be sad to miss it) I missed out on all the initial reports, but did notice that I can sign up for SWIFT via Facebook so I did. It’s in beta, so all or some of the things I am talking about may have been fixed by now. Here are my initial impressions.

In short SWIFT is supposed to be a 2.0 conference manager tool, nominally “social.” I signed up via Facebook and was a little chagrined to realize that my Facebook profile photo was imported into SWIFT without any specific assent on my part. The Edit link doesn’t work in the MySwift section of the site, so I guess I’m stuck with it. SWIFT also seems to know who my “friends” are which I’m assuming is information Facebook gave them. I have since blocked the application from Facebook — and let’s be clear, the application has no utility that I can discern on Facebook, it just mines Facebook data to deliver to its own site — and still my friend relationships are all over SWIFT. Not surprising, but still. I set up another non-Facebook-linked account and can’t edit that profile either.

I’m currently viewing “podcasts” (screencasts? vodcasts?) about how to use the tool. I went to the About page to see if I could figure out exactly what SWIFT is for, and the first paragraph is all marketingspeak

While conferences and trade shows remain highly lucrative and successful businesses, it is increasingly expensive and inefficient to capture and retain attendees. Today’s marketing investments do not take advantage of new social networks and peer influence in buying decisions. Exhibitors also face diminishing returns on their investments as they compete for buyer attention on the show floor.

Not super helpful. Do you know what this tool does yet? People seem to be indicating that the usefulness of the “platform” as the Computers in Libraries team calls it will become more apparent once there is actual content on the site. Others point out that the whole point of 2.0 technologies is more openness, not hiding content behind passwords and locking it up in your own silos. A few more comments in this direction are over at the CiL wiki.

There’s a beta testers’ group over at Google Groups which is closed to new users without admin approval. When I joined a support/testers group for the Twitter client Spaz, I just signed up. This is a choice someone made, the approval requirement. I’m getting a chunk of this information from the as-yet-unpublished FAQ which I received over email. It has photos of some of our favorite library celebs, at least one two of whom had no idea their photo was being published in SWIFT documentation. The FAQ also references the location of CIL2007 “media assets” which are in this directory, go look (note: now fixed). As near as I can tell, that’s all the recorded talks from last year’s CiL, just hanging out there on the open web. Mine’s D102 if you want to hear about Firefox.

I’m also a little confused by what I see as an essential conflict between the Terms of Service and the Privacy Policy. Both of them are your standard “we own the stuff you put online here” boilerplate, but the ToS specifically says “You further understand and agree that the Services may include certain communications from Company (such as administrative messages and certain newsletters), and that these communications are considered part of the Service and you may not be able to opt out of receiving them.” while the Privacy Policy says “Users who do not wish to receive email notifications or email newsletters may opt out at any time by following the links contained within the emails to Unsubscribe.” I’m not super surprised that “opt out” is a confusing topic for people new to the social software game, but I’d love to know what the skinny on this is.

Questions about the SWIFT privacy policy are referred to the Otter Group website without the benefit of a hyperlink to get you there. You may remember the Otter Group as the people who brought you ALA Bootcamp. Read their announcement about SWIFT which they call “a podcast directory for conference organizers.” A few buzzphrases about SWIFT make me pretty leery about the assertion that this creates any value at all for conference attendees.

  • Otter: “Publishers can also use Swift to dynamically insert advertising messages from conference sponsors or other advertisers.
  • Otter: “Users can also register with Swift (providing lead generation to organizers) in order to add their own content”
  • SWIFT about: “As users join your community and add content to your pages, your natural search results improve.”

SWIFT apparently makes use of social software sites’ APIs but doesn’t really have one of its own as near as I can tell. It has RSS feeds for “subsets of information inside Swift.” but I’m not sure what that means specifically and I don’t see them yet. Maybe someone going to CiL can explain? I also notice that they have a blog but that the blog itself is at a different URL from the rest of the site. Nitpicky detail perhaps, but there is a certain trust that people give to companies that “eat their own dog food” so to speak and I’m not feeling it here. The blog itself runs on WordPress. Being logged in to the imswift website does not actually log you in to comment on the blog. Too bad, I was going to tell tham that their link is broken in this post. Also, since I now know they’re using WP, how about nice URLs with words not numbers? Better for SEO, at the very least.

I was googling for some more information about what the Otter Group is doing with SWIFT and found this blog. Its URL seems to imply that it’s an Otter Group product, but while it’s in a SWIFT template, none of the links are live. You may notice that instead of the “252 people are attending 2 conferences in 2 states” line in the header, you see “32,834 people are attending 97 conferences in 23 states this month” It also says I’m logged in as Kathleen (I’m not really). Oh my. I assume this is an alpha site design which previously served some purpose. It probably needs to go away or needs a big disclaimer.

Upshot: At first glance, I’m not impressed. However, as with most social tools, utility really is the proving ground for these applications. A quick scan of the user interface and the policies leaves me scratching my head. While I’m happy that they’re integrating popular tools like Twitter, del.icio.us, Flickr and the like, my question remains: why do we need an aggregator for these tools, tools that we’re already using and already aggregating? I like the idea of librarians and information worker people having their own social tools, but we’ve seen them doing great things with the tools that already exist, tools that are well-designed and serve purposes. Tools that solve problems. I’m not convinced that this is anything other than a marketing tool shined up to look like a social tool to end users. I hope I’m proven wrong.

ALA, at large, not at large

I found out via a roundabout way that my bid to be the Vermont Library Association’s chapter councilor wasn’t successful. This is good news and bad news. The woman they elected was probably more qualified than me, and will probably not dislike her time on Council as much as I have historically. I am not sure if she will advocate as strongly for web site improvements and increased technological access to ALA generally, but I’m sure there are things she is planning on promoting. I would have liked to have been a Councilor representing a specific group and not just the “at large” world but I’m young and there is still time.

For me, this means that ALA in New Orleans is the last meeting I will go to as a Councilor, for a while, if not forever. This means I can, if I want, cancel my membership to ALA. It means I can plan a Fourth of July party without being on my way back from a conference. It means that I don’t have to travel out of state twice a year in addition to all the other travelling I do. It means I probably won’t try to explain some of ALA’s decisions that I find inexplicable. It means I’ll get more involved with my local chapter — the irony being that if I had been at VLA’s annnual meeting, I might have had more of a shot at getting elected, but I was in Ohio at the Small Libraries Conference talking about the digital divide, and the libraries I worked with back home.

I’ve been following some of the ALA L2 kerfuffle which I was more interested in as a friend of Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine than as an ALA member. As a Councilor, I didn’t hear word one about this endeavor. As a member, I’m not surprised that ALA chose to hire a consultant group that talked a better game than they delivered, though for them the price was right. All I know is that if your consultant starts making blog posts like this one complaining about being complained about, and not getting paid enough, it’s going to be a hard tailspin to pull out of. I wish everyone the best possible luck making the best of things.